EXCLUSIVE: If Marc Platt is fretting over the long-shot odds of Bridge Of Spies winning the top Oscar, you wouldn’t know it from the tone of his voice during a phone conversation on Super Bowl Sunday. We were doing a postmortem on last week’s successful presentation of Grease Live, which he produced for Paramount and Fox, when he mentioned the Spielberg film. That gave me an opening to steer the chat, however briefly, into Oscar territory. The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short might be nose-to-nose down the stretch, but Platt seemed unfazed.
The alignment of stars for Bridge Of Spies — meaning director Steven Spielberg and lead actors Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance — made an appealing package that came together quickly, he said. And the unanticipated immediacy of a Cold War story about power plays and U.S.-Soviet diplomacy wasn’t lost on him.
“Isn’t it remarkable?” Platt said. “We’re back to the same dramatic issues today.” He credited those issues, within a story-driven film, for the success of Bridge Of Spies globally: The $40 million film has surpassed $90 million in foreign ticket sales, against domestic sales of $72 million.
“That’s testament to a strong story, well told,” he said. “It’s a long and arduous journey,” he added about getting these comparatively modest-budget films financed in the first place. “But making it was phenomenal. Steven is not just consummate master filmmaker, but he loves making movies and brings such joy to the process. Sitting next to him at the monitor was phenomenal.”
“The conversation for me is really about, are we telling the right stories — and whether the opportunities are there and will they be recognized?”
Producer and director shared a love of theater as well. “Steven saw Mark Rylance onstage,” Platt recalled, noting that the cast of Spies is full of stage-trained actors. Although Spielberg was bypassed in the nominations, the film also is up for Original Screenplay, Original Score, Supporting Actor (Rylance), Art Direction and Sound statuettes. “You make a film and it’s wonderful to get acclamation from colleagues,” Platt said, “but it’s been icing on the cake.”
When Fox announced plans to present a new, live production of the stage (1972) and film (’78) hit Grease, I was skeptical. NBC’s entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt — like Platt a lover of live theater — got the ball rolling with holiday-season live broadcasts of The Sound Of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz. Grease didn’t strike me as holding much promise for, well, advancing the form.
I was wrong. Again, credit Platt for pairing the project with the right directors (Hamilton‘s Thomas Kail from Broadway and Dancing With The Stars‘ Alex Rudzinski on the TV side). The result was an appealing hybrid that fused the anything-might-happen energy of a live experience with film and TV techniques that brought the audience onstage, back stage and out-of-doors. The show drew ratings equal to Sound Of Music, the most-watched of the NBC broadcasts. Grease Live also re-set the bar for these productions. Platt is one of the few producers actively working on both coasts, with a catalog of films and shows in various stages of development at any given time (his biggest Broadway success by far is the global blockbuster Wicked). Cross pollination was apparent in every minute of Grease Live.
“My take-away from the NBC presentations was, what an inspired idea of Bob Greenblatt’s, to reintroduce live theater on TV,” Platt said. “When Grease came to me, I thought I could stretch the medium by creating a language that took advantage of theater, film and television.
“What we intended was an organic fusion of the experiences I’ve had as a producer,” he continued. “Our source material being from both stage and film, we were taking the language of stage musicals and the cinematic language of film and making it specific to, what is for me the unique medium of live television. Finding that uniqueness was one of the keys to a successful experience. Tommy Kail is as exciting a director as there is working in the theater; he has an intellectual energy and verve that matches Grease‘s. And Alex — he will take on any challenge. Tell him what you need and he will make it happen.”
Platt revisited the somewhat harrowing hours leading up to the telecast, which included a guest appearance by El Niño that drenched Los Angeles with sheets of rain and resulted in some quick revisions to the opening of the show on the Warners backlot.
“The sky was black and the wind was blowing,” he said. “We were prepared as best we could, but it was nerve-wracking behind the camera.”
He then took me, shot by shot, through the opening sequence, which encompassed a brief stage setup followed by singer Jessie J leading the camera — and us — through the backstage where actors were prepping, outside to the umbrella-twirling chorus in front of Rydell High, back up to the Principal’s office, all in one unbroken shot. Similarly, the first big number, “Summer Nights,” had the boys and girls in what looked like separate gyms until the camera pulled back and you saw that it was all taking place on a single soundstage. Were I writing this for Cahiers du Cinema I might call this meta, revealing the performance as performance to enhance the pleasure of watching the show.
“What I discovered in the moment is that there’s still something exciting about broadcast television,” Platt said, “when so many people binge watch. The ability to deliver the shared experience with an art form that I love was quite thrilling. It felt like a large community.”
I asked him to compare the cost of producing Grease Live to a Broadway musical like Wicked, on the one hand, or a film, on the other. “It cost about as much as the average musical,” he said. Well, there’s no such thing as an average musical anymore, but that would likely put it in the $15 million-$20 million range. Broadway shows that have been produced by Hollywood studios — Disney, Warner Bros, DreamWorks and Paramount among them — have tended to cost more; shows that came in from nonprofit tryouts have cost less.
Will there be an opportunity, I asked, for more, let’s say, grown-up material? Platt is, after all, the producer of the film of Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical Into The Woods.
“One would hope that with the success of these shows, the trend will continue and people will experiment,” the producer said. “I look at it like independent film. Some subjects are more sophisticated and will be produced for less money. I’m hoping the art form continues to evolve.”
Platt has two films coming out soon — La La Land, a musical written and directed by Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in July, and The Girl On The Train, a thriller directed by Tate Taylor and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, in October. Now he’s developing what he calls “a really fun, R-rated musical comedy” about two pilots and their misadventures, told in song and dance, which he assures will go before the cameras in the next 12 months or so.
We’ve circled back to talking movies, so I asked Platt about the post-Oscar nominations firestorm over diversity and the Academy’s response. He paused a few seconds before he answered, and said, “We’re in a business that is about telling stories, not all of which reflect the world we live in.
“So the conversation for me is really about, are we telling the right stories — and whether the opportunities are there and will they be recognized? That’s where my focus always is,” Platt said. “I want my projects to be great, of course. The talent has to come from a diverse pool. Because that’s the world we live in.”